How Labour Can Stay Together (Just)

First Published in the Huffington Post

The current political crisis is, in essence, a crisis of democracy. The EU referendum represented a rare opportunity for people to radically change the country?-?and people grabbed it with both hands. The opportunity to make a difference was more important than the cause in question. There were precursors of this for anyone who wanted to see them: the Scottish referendum, the collapse in support for both main parties in favour of the Ukip, the SNP and the Greens in 2010 and 2015, and the election of Jeremy Corbyn last summer, against the wishes of the entire media and political establishment. The referendum was a release mechanism – real choice had been denied for so long, and this was one of the few elections in which every vote really counted.

But if the crisis is one of democracy the solution has to be more democracy, not less. The Conservatives have failed to recognise this: crowning Theresa May is effective in the short term but is ultimately a mistake, just as it was a mistake for Labour to crown Gordon Brown in 2007 without a contest. The right wing Labour party machine also fails to understand the logic of the moment – excluding 150,000 of new voters from voting, as well as reportedly excluding up to 50,000 registered supporters. Had Corbyn’s opponents on the NEC not imposed these anti-democratic rule but instead allowed time for all sides to recruit, the party would surely have 1 million members by now. But too many in all parties see their membership as a problem to be managed, and seek to give members as little power as possible.

If, as seems likely, Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership election, Labour will be in the same position as it has been in for the past year. But we cannot go on as we have done -another year of attempting to overthrow the elected leader will surely be catastrophic for all wings of the party. The solution is relatively clear; if there are up to 172 MPs who have no confidence in their elected leader and who are unwilling to fully leave the party, they must form their own parliamentary faction. The new faction would elect its own leader and have its own shadow front bench. But both factions would be identified with the Labour party. This is hardly uncommon in modern democracies: the larger faction (presumably the anti-Corbyn one) would get the title of official opposition, but other duties and privileges of opposition (questions to the prime minster, select committee posts, a share of official funding) would need to be divided up between the two factions, as they already are between the Liberal Democrats and SNP. It would be a little complex but Parliament could cope. The ability of both sides to put out policy statements, and express themselves clearly would be far less chaotic than the status quo.

This could only ever be a temporary solution. The biggest question would be which candidates to stand at the next general election, now likely to take place well before 2020. This issue should be solved by appealing to democracy, this time on the local level. An agreement would be needed in which there is an open selection in every constituency, with local members able to decide which candidate (including the former MP) is likely to be most popular in their constituency. Where possible, open primaries with online voting would be ideal, opening up the decision to the entire local electorate, not just to party members. The winning candidate would have won the support of a substantial number of local voters, and would thus have a high chance of winning the seat.

This approach would mean that that each constituency got the kind of candidate it needed to win. This is important – Corbyn supporters are correct to say that in many seats, a firmly socialist platform is needed to overcome both apathy and Ukip. But the right of the party also have a point in that there are many seats in which Ukip are irrelevant and the key is getting voters to switch from the Tories to Labour, particularly in seats not currently held by Labour and with a largely middle class electorate. Appealing to those kind of swing voters probably does require a centrist candidate. Local party members are best placed to make these choices.

The result would be a very diverse set of candidates from two (or more) factions – but they would never directly stand against each other, avoiding the split vote problem which occurred in 1983. There would be a central Labour manifesto – containing just the issues that both sides could agree on, and then separate manifestos from each faction outlining the issues they would be fighting for if the combined Labour party had a majority. There would have to be multiple leaders – if Labour won, the leader of whichever faction gained the most seats would be prime minister, with the other as deputy. Labour has always been a broad coalition -bringing together near-Marxists with near-Conservatives – this would simply formalise that situation.

If there was a broad electoral pact encompassing Labour, the Greens, SNP, Plaid and the Liberal Democrats, exactly the same process would be required; local primaries to find out which candidate/party would be most successful in each constituency, and other parties then not standing in order to create a fair fight between a centre-left candidate and the Tories/UKIP (who would surely form their own electoral pact in response). Such a pact would need to combine economic and constitutional issues: EEA membership (remaining in the single market and preserving freedom of movement), constitutional reform (proportional representation, english devolution, democratisation of the House of Lords), basic income, an end to public sector cuts and a focus on investment and infrastructure.

This is a short term solution. If a progressive alliance won a majority it would introduce proportional representation, allowing progressive parties to in future stand against each other without letting the Tories win. Only then would we have a fully democratic system. That juncture, rather than now, would be the moment for Labour to dissolve itself into fully separate parties. The Blairite rump who want to destroy the left at all costs will not accept this proposal. Neither will those Corbynites who believe a Corbyn-led Labour party can imminently win a general election under first past the post. But I think many will recognise it as the most democratic option possible under our current electoral system. In this time of anti-elitist politics a semi-detached, but highly democratic Labour party, fighting as part of a progressive electoral alliance, might be the least worst outcome.